An Open Letter to Ralph Nader
According to the latest news reports, you've pushed up your self-imposed deadline for announcing your decision about an independent 2004 presidential campaign from the end of January to mid-February. We're glad to hear that, because maybe it means you're still not sure about the best path to follow. For the good of the country, the many causes you've championed and for your own good name--don't run for President this year.
Ralph, you've been part of the Nation family for a long time, from the day in 1959 we published one of your first articles, the exposé of "The Safe Car You Can't Buy." Since then, you've been a consistent advocate for active citizenship, investigative scholarship and environmental stewardship. It wasn't hype when we called you Public Citizen Number One.
We know you've never been one to back down from a fight. When people tell you you can't do something, if you think it's the right thing to do, you do it anyway. That stubborn devotion to principle is one of your greatest strengths. It inspired a generation of Nader's Raiders in the 1960s and '70s, it helped produce notable victories like the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and it inspired a new generation of young people who flocked to your "super rallies" in 2000. The issues you raise on your website, NaderExplore04.org--full public financing of elections, new tools to help citizens band together, ending poverty, universal healthcare, a living wage, a crackdown on corporate crime--are vital to the long-term health of our country. When those issues are given scant attention by major-party candidates and ignored or trivialized by the sham joint candidate appearances known as presidential debates, we join in your outrage.
But when devotion to principle collides with electoral politics, hard truths must be faced. Ralph, this is the wrong year for you to run: 2004 is not 2000. George W. Bush has led us into an illegal pre-emptive war, and his defeat is critical. Moreover, the odds of this becoming a race between Bush and Bush Lite are almost nil. For a variety of reasons--opposition to the war, Bush's assault on the Constitution, his crony capitalism, frustration with the overcautious and indentured approach of inside-the-Beltway Democrats--there is a level of passionate volunteerism at the grassroots of the Democratic Party not seen since 1968.
The context for an independent presidential bid is completely altered from 2000, when there was a real base for a protest candidate. The overwhelming mass of voters with progressive values--who are essential to all efforts to build a force that can change the direction of the country--have only one focus this year: to beat Bush. Any candidacy seen as distracting from that goal will be excoriated by the entire spectrum of potentially progressive voters. If you run, you will separate yourself, probably irrevocably, from any ongoing relationship with this energized mass of activists. Look around: Almost no one, including former strong supporters, is calling for you to run, compared with past years when many veteran organizers urged you on.
If you run, your efforts to raise neglected issues will hit a deafening headwind. The media will frame you as The Spoiler. It's also safe to predict that you will get far fewer votes than the 2.8 million you garnered in 2000, and not only because your rejection of the Green Party raises expensive new hurdles to getting your name on state ballots. A recent online survey by the progressive news site AlterNet.org found that only one in nine respondents said they'd vote for you if you run this year, a 60 percent drop-off from the number who said they voted for you in 2000. If you run and get a million votes or fewer, the media will say it means your issues were not important. This can only hurt those causes, not to mention the tangible costs another run may impose on the many public-interest groups tied to you.
You have said your candidacy could actually help Democrats by raising issues against Bush that a Democratic candidate would avoid and by boosting turnout for good candidates for the House and Senate, where the slender bulwarks against Bushism must be reinforced. But these arguments do not compel a candidacy by you. As a public citizen fighting for open debates and rallying voters to support progressive Democrats for Congress, or good independents or Greens for that matter, you can have a far more productive impact than as a candidate dealing with recriminations about being a spoiler or, worse, an egotist. And the very progressives distressed by the prospect of your candidacy would contribute eagerly to have that voice amplified.
And if you think that this year you can help the anti-Bush cause by running and peeling off disgruntled Republicans, McCainiacs, Perotistas and the like while not disrupting the Democratic charge, please be honest with yourself. Once upon a time, maybe as late as 1992, when you dallied with a "none of the above" campaign and got 2 percent of the vote in New Hampshire from write-ins in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, your appeal stretched across the political spectrum. No longer, alas. Your nephew, Tarek Milleron, wrote recently that if you run in 2004 it will be "the year of the Elks clubs, the garden clubs, meetings with former Enron employees, the veterans groups, Wal-Mart employees," not progressive super rallies. But how many Elks club presidents are inviting you to speak? How many veterans groups? Such relationships take time to build and can't be conjured out of thin air in the midst of a presidential campaign.
You once told us you play chess at many levels at once. For all we know, you're thinking of running hard and then, if the race is close, throwing your support to the Democrat in the final days. While such a tactic might make for a satisfying conclusion to an otherwise futile quest, we don't think it justifies the risks, antagonism, confusion and contortions that such a run would entail.
Ralph, please think of the long term. Don't run.